32 Chapter 11 – Gustave Moreau

The Mystic Moreau

Eric Walters

Audio recording of this chapter is available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lqvWpzUoeq-1os–RXR-rpuDuys0n09C/view?usp=sharing


Gustave Moreau was born in Paris, France on April 4, 1826, to parents extremely passionate about the arts[1]. In 1841, before going on a trip with his mother to Italy, his architect Father Louis, gave Moreau a sketchbook and ordered him to fill it by the time he came home[2]. When Moreau returned, he exhibited a newfound passion for drawing.[3] Around 1844, after devoting all his free time to practicing, Moreau was accepted into École des Beaux-Arts to be taught by painter François-Édouard Picot.[4] It was not until Moreau left the school and Picot’s teaching that he could be free to submerse himself in such things as spirituality, myth, literature, color, and decor, which we know him for today.

As a young artist, Moreau began to seek inspiration for his art. In 1846, an interest in the poetic nature of history and myth started to take form. His first artwork to have been inspired by this was the pencil drawing Sappho on the Edge of the Cliff.[5] Soon after, Moreau came to greatly admire two artists by the names of Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Chassériau. Eventually, Moreau became close friends with Chassériau. Painting with Chassériau inspired Moreau to work with rich color, examine literature for inspiration, and paint the same subject multiple times as Chassériau did with Hamlet.[6] The two’s friendship left a lasting impact on Moreau’s style.[7]

Chassériau died suddenly in 1856, causing Moreau to lock himself in his study and focus on his work.[8] His depression and dissatisfaction with the work he was producing inspired him to take a trip to Italy.[9] Here he studied the Renaissance, as well as Greek and Roman architecture and artifacts.[10] Moreau began to take even more of an interest in decor when he became fascinated by the Byzantine enamels, early mosaics, and Persian and Indian miniatures that he was exposed to.[11] While trying to understand the essence of some of the Italian master painters’ styles, he replicated works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael[12]. During his stay in the Italian countryside, Moreau painted several watercolor landscapes, realizing it was a medium he adored and was good at.[13] This influenced him to create many watercolor masterpieces[14].

Moreau always considered himself a history painter, although he did not accept all the conventions by which it had been categorized by the artistic establishment. He was not out to make an academic history painting, but rather one he considered to be epic. History painting at the time used an academic system of facial expressions taken from Charles le Brun’s 1732 collection Expressions des Passions de I’ame, a system Moreau despised as he saw the theatrics of the history painting as idiotic, childish and not for the pictorial form.[15] This did not change the academics from viewing him as a history painter though[16]. A great example of his history painting is 1869’s, The Martyred Saint Sebastian.

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Gustave Moreau, The Martyred Saint Sebastian, oil on canvas, 1869

The art Moreau created was fueled in part by his quest for spiritual enlightenment. In his search, he researched the history of many cultures and belief systems. His focus was on Greece, India, the Orient, Judaism, Christianity, the occult, and Neo-Platonic traditions.[17] This research led Moreau to embrace Gnosticism[18]. Moreau may not have been following all of what the academics thought was proper in art, but one thing they could agree on was mythology and the bible being one of the most favorable themes. The intense passion he had for these themes, and the attachment to his view of history painting, led him to use archaeological documents as a reference to add to the depth of the paintings that were beginning to be hung in the Salons[19].

Moreau loved using ornaments and other decorations in his art, having been inspired by his trip to Italy. When talking about the Italian masters he loved, Moreau stated they “feel that in framing the subject with a profusion of decorative formulas, they ennoble the subject.[20]” Moreau saw this as a great form of symbolism as he often painted people of importance. For example, Salome’s nobility is shown through the jewels on her outfit. On Salome Moreau said, “I should like to render the idea of a sibyl and religious enchantress with a pronounced character. I, therefore, conceived of the costume as a reliquary.”[21]

Wanting to dive into the themes of dreaming, obsession, magic, exoticism, and extravagance, Moreau took to the character archetype of the femme fatale. Once again embracing his love for history, literature and myth, Moreau painted many women including Salome, Helen of Troy, and Lady Macbeth[22]. With lots of his depictions of women being evil, Moreau was often criticized for being a misogynist. It is worth noting that many romantic artists at this time, including poet Charles Baudelaire, often used women as a symbol of nature’s force[23]. It is only natural for an attraction that we cannot control to feel powerful and dangerous. Moreau himself had an interesting love life. He has been linked to Adelaide-Alexandrine Dureux, who he painted several times over decades, but there is much ambiguity if the two were actually a couple or not as he did not live with her.[24] One could speculate that this relationship also reinforced the inspiration for the themes around the women he depicted.

The Apparition (1876) captures many of Moreau’s themes perfectly. Salome is a historical biblical figure who plays the role of a femme fatal, she is covered in jewels as mentioned before, and the head of John the Baptist is ennobled by Moreau’s use of decoration behind his floating head. Moreau was also the first to depict this scene with John’s head floating, providing the viewer with a symbolic experience.[25] Ary Renan has said he believes Moreau was inspired by Heinrich Heine’s poem Atta Troll, as Moreau had a copy[26]. This was not the only time Salome made an appearance in Moreau’s art as she became a recurring character throughout his career.

Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, watercolor on paper, 1876

In 1891, things came full circle for Moreau when Jules-Élie Delaunay on his deathbed asked Moreau to take over for him at École des Beaux-Arts[27]. Here he taught young artists such as Léon Bonhomme, Edgar Maxence, and René Piot. It has been said that Moreau had a deep passion for fostering artist’s personal styles.[28] His students loved him so much that years after his death, they put on two exhibitions in his memory, one in 1910, and the other in 1926.[29] When Moreau died in 1898, his students felt lost with all the new teachers who came and went attempting to fill his position. Not having the same coaching Moreau provided, lots of his students left the school.[30]

Moreau’s creations have left a lasting impact on the art world. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the poetic nature of Moreau’s art would become an inspiration to the artists who began to call themselves symbolists. Just as Moreau was inspired by literature, writers and poets alike would in return become inspired by his works. Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salome (1893) with Moreau’s art as his muse. Claude Debussy even told Victor Segalen to look to Moreau’s art to fuel his creativity when he had proposed writing his opera Orphée-Roi (Mathieu 1976, 255-256). For an artist of any sort who wants to create anything mystic, poetic, decorative or historic, Moreau is one of the most interesting artists to seek out for inspiration.

 

Bibliography

 

Cooke, Peter. “Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting.” Art Bulletin, 394. doi:10.1080/00043079.2008.10786400.

Ellem, Lucy M. Grace. “Gustave Moreau and Gnosticism.” Essay. In Religion, Literature and the Arts Project: Conference Proceedings of the Australian International Conference, 1995: 155. https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SSR/article/view/11671/10994

Gordon, Rae Beth. “Aboli Bibelot? The Influence of the Decorative Arts on Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau.” Art Journal, 1985. 105. doi:10.2307/776787.

“Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine.” NGV. National Gallery of Victoria, September 3, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/media_release/gustave-moreau-and-the-eternal-feminine/.

Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 24-255.

Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 8-51.

Schiff, Bennett. “The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau.” Smithsonian, 1999. 100. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=2065771&site=eds-live

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1961: 112-114. https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_catalogue_3419_300062233.pdf

 


  1. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 24-29.
  2. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 8-22.
  3. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 24-29
  4. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 24-29
  5. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 8-22.
  6. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 8-22.
  7. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 8-22.
  8. Schiff, Bennett. “The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau.” Smithsonian, 1999. 100.
  9. Schiff, Bennett. “The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau.” Smithsonian, 1999. 100.
  10. Schiff, Bennett. “The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau.” Smithsonian, 1999. 100.
  11. Schiff, Bennett. “The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau.” Smithsonian, 1999. 100.
  12. Schiff, Bennett. “The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau.” Smithsonian, 1999. 100.
  13. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 27.
  14. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 27.
  15. Cooke, Peter. “Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting.” Art Bulletin, 2008. 394. doi:10.1080/00043079.2008.10786400.
  16. Cooke, Peter. “Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting.” Art Bulletin, 2008. 394. doi:10.1080/00043079.2008.10786400.
  17. Ellem, Lucy M. Grace. “Gustave Moreau and Gnosticism.” Essay. In Religion, Literature and the Arts Project: Conference Proceedings of the Australian International Conference, 1995: 155. https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SSR/article/view/11671/10994
  18. Ellem, Lucy M. Grace. “Gustave Moreau and Gnosticism.” Essay. In Religion, Literature and the Arts Project: Conference Proceedings of the Australian International Conference, 1995: 155. https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SSR/article/view/11671/10994
  19. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 26-51. 
  20. Gordon, Rae Beth. “Aboli Bibelot? The Influence of the Decorative Arts on Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau.” Art Journal, 1985. 105. doi:10.2307/776787.
  21. Gordon, Rae Beth. “Aboli Bibelot? The Influence of the Decorative Arts on Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau.” Art Journal, 1985. 105. doi:10.2307/776787.
  22. “Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine.” NGV. National Gallery of Victoria, September 3,2010. https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/media_release/gustave-moreau-and-the-eternal-feminine/.
  23. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin.Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1961: 112-114.https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_catalogue_3419_300062233.pdf
  24. Selz, Jean. “Gustave Moreau.” New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1979: 26-51.
  25. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 124-126.
  26. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings,Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 124-126. 
  27. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings,Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 211-256.
  28. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 211-256.
  29. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 211-256.
  30. Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. “Gustave Moreau with a Catalogue of the Finished Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings.” Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1976: 211-256.

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